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Bok Backs Honor Code, but Will the College?

New president may revive debate, dormant since ’85

By Stephanie S. Garlow, Contributing Writer

Derek C. Bok’s ascension to Harvard’s top post could revive the debate over a College honor code. The incoming interim president has praised such codes in two of his own books.

In his 1990 book “Universities and the Future of America,” Bok wrote, “Perhaps the greatest benefit of honor systems is the stimulus they give students to think about their own moral responsibility and to discuss the subject among themselves. This is such an important advantage that one wonders why more colleges have not adopted an honor code of their own.”

In “Our Underachieving Colleges,” published late last year, Bok wrote, “Researchers find that using conventional methods that rely on proctors tends to result in more dishonesty than introducing honor codes.”

When asked yesterday whether his writings on honor codes would apply to Harvard, Bok said, “I don’t see why not.”

But it is not clear whether Bok will have the time—or the inclination—to push for such a code during his brief term, which is expected only to last one year.

And Bok’s writings suggest that he would not impose an honor code if students did not rally behind the idea.

“Apparently honor codes themselves are not as important as the efforts accompanying them to create a supportive peer environment that affirms honesty and discourages cheating of any kind,” Bok wrote in his most recent book.


Although Radcliffe College used an honor code from 1907 until 1961, one has never existed at Harvard College. Indeed, both faculty members and students question whether a code could survive at Harvard.

Honor code systems generally require students to sign a pledge stating that they will not cheat, and then to certify on each exam they hand in that the test was taken honestly.

Having signed the honor code, students are then permitted to take unproctored exams.  

While honor codes are more common at small, liberal arts colleges, they are also present at larger research universities. Stanford has had an honor code since 1921, Princeton since 1893, and the University of Virginia since 1842.

In a 1985 Harvard study commissioned by then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence, author Brian Melendez ’86 cited the “Harvard milieu” as one of the barriers to the creation of a code.

“The self-reliance and self-interest of the Harvard student might smother an honor code before it had a chance to grow and thrive,” Melendez wrote.

Paula F. Popescu ’07, a transfer student from Wellesley College, agreed with this assessment.

“My opinion is that it might not work,” she said. “Because it’s a more stressful environment, more competitive, people would be more likely to cheat here.”

Professor of Sociology Michele Lamont, who taught at Princeton for 15 years before coming to Harvard, rejected the idea that the character of Harvard students would hamper the success of an honor code.

“To presume that it wouldn’t work is to presume that Harvard students have less of a moral commitment to their honor, which to me is absurd,” she said. “I won’t believe that, it doesn’t make sense.”


Philip A. Bean, Harvard’s assistant dean of freshmen from 1999 to 2002, suggested that it is the attitude of the administration, not of the students, that would make it difficult for a code to exist at Harvard.

“Harvard’s managerial style has long been very ‘top-down,’ characterized by an extremely strong sense of hierarchy,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not sure that’s compatible with an honor code or, more fundamentally, to creating one in the first place.”

Matthew J. Dickinson, a former Harvard professor who is now at Middlebury College, agreed that the culture of the administration impacts the potential for success.

“[At Harvard], there might be a little more of an ethos of ‘we need to police the students’ than I find here,” he said.


Melendez’s report also cited social fragmentation as a possible obstacle, as the House system separates students into “microcosms.”

Although smaller communities are present within the College, built through residences, concentrations, classes, and extracurricular activities, there is no “overarching sense of community throughout the College that other schools claim support their honor codes,” according to the report.

Bean, who is now director of academic resources at Haverford, said the size of an institution influences the sense of community that is important to the success of an honor code.

“The trust on which the success of such a system rests seems easier to maintain in what one could characterize as a ‘face-to-face’ community, one that is only about one-fifth the size of Harvard College, where people generally recognize one another and feel some deep sense of ownership over the College and its fortunes,” Bean wrote.

However, Marichal Gentry, associate dean of the college at Middlebury, questioned the notion that the size of a university would inhibit the creation of a sense of community, citing the success of honor codes at large universities, like the University of Virginia.

Melendez’s report also cited diversity as a potential barrier to the success of an honor code.

“An honor-code community must share a ‘matrix of common belief and purpose’ that underlies the code, and a homogeneous community is likelier to reach a broader agreement about this matrix,” Melendez wrote in his 1985 study.

But David L. Tannenwald ’08, a transfer student from Brown University, strongly disagreed with the notion that diversity presents an impediment to an honor code system.

“I think there are certain values among students that are more or less universal,” he said.


There are, nonetheless, important benefits to honor code systems. According to Melendez, an honor code would address the lack of moral training in a university education. Melendez wrote that the lack of such training is a “great defect.”

“One’s education ought to train him or her to survive and succeed in life. Yet one might easily find himself or herself in a situation where all the liberal arts in the world avail nothing,” Melendez wrote.

Studies on the frequency of cheating at American universities provide another argument for an honor code system. According to a 1993 study by Donald L. McCabe and Linda K. Trevino, students at non-honor code colleges self-reported a higher incidence of academic dishonesty than their peers at honor code institutions.

Bean said that in his experience, cheating was more of a problem at Harvard than it is at Haverford.

“Cheating—the most serious matter in an academic code of any kind—unfortunately exists everywhere, and while I would not say it was rampant, in my experience, at Harvard, it was somewhat surprising to see, during my three years on the Ad Board, just how much of it there was and how astonishing some of the cases were.”

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